Saving Public Education

The old DeWitt Clinton building, now John Jay College, Photo: Americasroof (CC)


I’d like to use the word “justice” – that I felt compelled to tell the story of the school as a matter of justice. That we are so easy to write books and tell stories about great universities, but when it comes to high schools we don’t think that way. And yet if you ask every person on the street about somebody  who influenced them, he always or she always brings up a high school teacher or a high school coach. High schools have had a tremendous influence on who we are as a people, as a nation. And there should be documentation about the high schools, and I believe that DeWitt Clinton is a great school that has had tremendous influence on American life. – Gerard Pelisson, former high school teacher and co-author of  “The Castle on the Parkway,” a history of DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx N.Y.

“Ever to thee” are words of loyalty from a high school anthem, a school song that reverberates in my mind a half a century after I left DeWitt Clinton H.S. back in days I lived in the Bronx.

There’s no doubt that my experience and instruction at “DeWitt C” helped propel me into journalism as a career, and ultimately, to writing opinion columns like this.

When “my” then all-boys school, once the biggest high school in the world, was threatened with closure by bureaucrats who fancy themselves “educational reformers,” I set out to make a film about DeWitt Clinton, its 100 year plus history, and the challenges that confront it as a wave of privatization sweeps over education with schools shuttered in city after city. I wanted to celebrate the importance of public education.

The hour-long documentary is now available, featuring interviews with current students, alumni and teachers. You can see the trailer and promo on Facebook, and find out how to order it.

Years ago, in my book, News Dissector: Passions, Pieces and Polemics, (Electron Press 2000) I wrote about my formative years in editing the student newspaper.

I called it “Bodoni Bold.”

“Journalism has its mysteries. Typefaces are one of them. Our newspaper at the mighty DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx chose Bodoni Bold, a deep black inky distinctive typeface. I was never quite sure why. There was a rumor that the printer, who set the paper for us in hot type eight times a school year, had cornered the bodoni market, had it locked up, maybe even received a commission on each slug banged out in the bold.

Who knows? Who cares, except it is one of the details still percolating through my brain cells all these years. later. I am thinking of a stuffy, tiny Clinton News Office, for a time my home away from home.

On every wall there were lists of the students who had come before us, including some famous names who went on to the big time. Where did the others go? Most of them, I suppose, had the good sense to move on to other non-journalism lives. I rose through the ranks from reporter to editor, getting a whiff of newsprint, leads, headlines, and the by-line bug. It gave me a taste that would stay with me for the rest of my life.

Lou Simon is the guy I’d thank. He was our advisor, teacher, confessor. He was young when he came to Clinton in the mid-fifties, maybe 28 or 29. He had a crewcut and a funny duck walk. His English classes and journalism sessions hammered away at basics. Who? What? Why? Where? When? How? He made us recite these five W’s, and slashed away at stories that missed one or another aspect of the formula. “Get it right, check your facts, watch your grammar.” Nothing was sent to the printer without a big Blue L from Lou Simon scrawled up in the left hand corner of the copy. It was his stamp of approval.

There were times that I fought with him, fussed with him and cursed him under my breath. He was stubbornly insistent and usually right, and the Clinton News had the scholastic prizes to prove it. Here we were, this massive 4200 all boy Bronx High School, so rough that we quipped we’d have a recess every day to carry out the wounded, and we’d win top national student press prizes every year, competing in the kudo count against newspapers from fancy prep schools.

Fully a third of the students came from feeder junior high schools in Harlem. Every year, four tall high scoring black kids would bring the tricks from their playground practices on to the backboards in the school gym. Somewhere they’d pick up a Jewish kid, or an Italian here or there, some guy whose every minute was spent practicing jump shots or learning to drive towards the basket like a Spanish toreador. Clinton was supreme on the courts.

We were sports kings all right, terrorizing the mere mortals who played against us, some of whom were more frightened about the inevitable fight after the game than the athletic contest itself. Anyway, Clinton boys had a street rep; a respect born of intimidation. We were the incarnation of the movie “Blackboard Jungle.” Every few weeks, there were reports of rumbles on the subways involving some of our fellow students. 4200 adolescent boys pump out a lot of testosterone.

Being on the newspaper didn’t do much for you on the mano a mano scale, but the athletes liked you because they wanted their pictures in the paper.

Thinking back on it now, I’m glad I went there. I was thrown into the great NY melting pot or, perhaps more accurately, the salad bowl, the stew of ethnicities and neighborhoods that give the city its vitality. Some of us mixed; some of us didn’t, but we were all together. When you’d go to the boy’s room, there were always some black kids harmonizing. They felt that the tiles in the bathroom sweetened the sound. And they were always on key.

The comedian Robert Klein, who graduated two years before me, has produced a comedy album and an HBO special goofing on his time at DeWitt C. He has even written a song celebrating life in the Bronx back then “The Bronx is so beautiful this time of year.” He belted the song out at the School’s hundred year reunion. Grown men cried, singing along. There was even an alumnus there from the class of 1919.

I was a working class kid at a working class school. No pretensions, little elitism. It was a real down to earth grounding, and for me part of a larger tradition. My father went there, as did my uncle. My brother followed me. Something must have touched him about the experience, because he has been a high school teacher ever since getting out of college and a great one.

And irony of ironies, one of his students was a descendant of the original DeWitt Clinton, the great New York Governor after whom the school was named. He brought the kid back to the Bronx and introduced him to the institution that carries his name.

Don’t get me wrong. This was not high school heaven; it was no educational oasis or utopia. It had many problems and flaws. It was run then like a boot camp! There were overcrowded classes, incompetent teachers, and hardheaded students including many who were proud to be called JDs—juvenile delinquents. It also practiced tracking, a form of elitism, so that the brighter kids were exposed to more advanced subject matter and greater opportunity. But we were all mixed together up n the lunchroom, in gym, on teams and in the intro courses.

The school made the toughest kids, the real hoods, into hall monitors to channel their energy in a more positive but still authoritarian direction. I may have hated a lot of what went on there then, but I remember it fondly now. Time does take the edges off—and allows us all to mythologize about a golden age that, of course never existed.

We were also the fifties generation. We had duck-and-cover fallout shelter drills. We had assemblies with patriotic themes. Most of us wore our hair short and were pretty straight. A black friend who identified with the jazz world introduced me to pot. But only a few of us had our illicit puffs then. (And yes, I inhaled.) It was basically the pre-drug era.

I did okay in school—not great. I was hopeless in math, bored in science, but animated by history, and, yes, a bit of an ass-kisser and do-gooder. But to this day I am loyal to the red and black, and can still remember every word of the school song, “Clinton Alma Mater, thy name we sing.”

About five years ago, I went to a reunion that brought together some of the Clinton generations. Maybe it was a sign of the times, but it was held in suburban Westchester where many Bronx residents fled after the borough was allowed to decay in the urban disasters of the ‘60s. That year, the honorees were the 50 year veterans of the Class of ‘43 and the silver anniversary vets, closer to my time, the Class of ‘68.

The World War two vets celebrated their war, “the big one,” with anecdotes about hearing of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in the school auditorium and then rushing out to enlist. They left as boys and came back as men. Not all of them came back.

I was more touched by the representative of 1968 who said he wished he could have been as proud of his generation’s war, the one in Vietnam, but he wasn’t. There was silence, and then a trickle of applause. He stood there, six foot six, black and proud, with tears welling in his eyes as he apologized for dropping a ball in a Public School Athletic League (PSAL) city-wide championship game a quarter of a century earlier. “Forgive me,” he asked, “but it has been bugging me all these years.”

The shame of it was still with him twenty-five years later. He received an ovation with the older alums who went up on stage to embrace him. Then they all hugged and squeezed each other, little old Italian men in ill-fitting suits and this giant jock groomed on the streets of Harlem. That was the Clinton spirit!

But then, it was time for the big shock. In the intervening decades since I graduated in 1960, Clinton fell on hard times. Large sections of the Bronx had been torched for the insurance money. The borough became national exhibit number one for urban decline. All of New York’s social problems soon infiltrated the halls and the ranks, decimating the student body and the school’s reputation. Soon, Drugs. Crime. Gangs were blamed for the collapse of educational standards. The Board of Education seemed bored with promoting innovative educational programs

At some point, the powers that be decided on a drastic step, a radical break with tradition. They integrated the school. They let girls in!

And so now, the doors at our reunion burst open as a color guard marched in, followed by the current Student Government leaders who came to say hello to us old-timers.

Oh, my god, they were w-o-m-e-n, Latina foxes, mostly Puerto Rican, beautiful and brassy in tight outfits and high heels. Wow. Some of the guys reverted to form and whistled, quickly laughing at themselves for doing so.

Yes, Clinton had changed, as had we. And yet these kids were part of our tradition, up from the streets city kids. The ethnic mix was different now, but their youth and exuberance remained as energized as ours had ever been.

I even met one of the editors of the newly revived Clinton News. The baton had been passed.”

Update: The school is still vital in the North Bronx. The Department of Education recently threatened to close it but now wants to limit the size of the student body and add two new schools to what is to be called “The DeWitt Clinton Campus.”

The students, teachers and alums all oppose the move and blame the City for dumping kids with educational deficits in the School and then slashing its budget. A battle has been joined at Clinton as it is in cities across America where public schools are being closed and private interests want to take over. This is not a new fight—but it is one worth fighting!

News Dissector Danny Schechter went on from The Clinton News to editing a magazine at college and then plunged into a career in print, radio and TV. He tells that story in a new book, Dissecting The News and Lighting The Fuse. He is a blogger (NewsDissector.net) who also edits Mediachannel.org. Comments to dissector@mediachannel.org

 

 

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  • BuzzCoastin

    a touching tribute to a monument of the bygone era

  • http://www.zoboprepublic.wordpress.com/ zobop republic

    People should know by now that Urban Public Schools are being trashed and destroyed to make way for Charter Schools run by a “corporate” board of mis-education.